Subtlety and anime don’t always go together. This is a medium where the laws of physics don’t apply to women’s chests and logic is something for boring people to worry about. But every show has someone behind it writing it — and every writer has a message they want to get across.
Yes, there is social commentary in anime, even in the silliest and simplest shows you can think of. There are plenty of people who will scream to keep these kinds of messages out of anime, but the truth is that anime has had things to say for a very long time now.
Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at some social commentary in anime where you might not expect it.
Dragon Ball is one of the dumbest shows that I love with all my heart. At its core, it is about Goku and how he gets out of the most sticky of situations by virtue of shouting louder and flexing harder than his enemy. This concept, combined with Akira Toriyama’s penchant for not planning ahead – ask yourself what happened to Launch – means that this might be the last place you expect to find social commentary in anime.
But then you get Frieza. Easily one of the most iconic villains in anime history, his entire concept is that he is a real estate broker on a galactic level. Sending his goons in to decimate a planet and then sell it to the highest bidder.
This was inspired by the actions of the real estate brokers who contributed to one of the worst financial collapses in recent memory. It was caused, in part, by people manipulating this situation real estate prices for a quick profit. Toriyama has gone on the record to say that he considers these the worst kind of people. He modelled Frieza’s behaviour and speech pattern after seeing that these were villains who could hide in plain sight because they were nice about it.
I will never pass up an opportunity to talk about Trigun: the story of Vash the Stampede and his quest to cause no harm while being hounded by bounty hunters, hired guns sent by his twin brother and even insurance adjusters who see him as a cause of their loss of profits. The anime especially is a very straightforward story — though there is obvious potential for philosophical discussion when considering the contrast between Vash’s pacifism and Knives’ overall contempt for humanity. That’s the social commentary in anime I’m talking about here.
In reality, it isn’t Knives who causes Vash the most heartache. Throughout the anime, it is people chasing money who give him the most difficulty. An entire town teams up to chase the bounty on his head, bringing in the Nebraska family to finish the job. Entire cities get wiped off the map by those bounty hunters. Moreso than Knives or the Gung Ho Guns, Vash’s true enemy on the planet Gunsmoke is capitalism, and how it drives people to greed.
The second episode spells this out clearly, with a land developer hoarding the region’s water and driving the rest of the area to poverty, but it is a theme that pops up regularly throughout the series. Capitalism and the greed that comes with it is what Vash is truly struggling against.
I know you’re wondering what the big message behind a story of the most poorly disguised ninja of all time is. Naruto himself is a pretty overt character, often shouting the themes and storylines louder than Ryuji talking about how much he loves being a Phantom Thief in a crowded restaurant. But the story he finds himself swept up in isn’t one that he created.
In fact, it was put into motion generations before when the various ninja villages were set up. The characters just don’t know about it because that part of history was painful and scary — and people didn’t talk about it for so long that everyone forgot it happened.
And that’s where the social commentary in anime pops up. Whether it is colonialism, the treatment of indigenous people or slavery, every nation has stories they don’t want to admit to. But ignoring those stories doesn’t make them just magically go away.
If Naruto is anything to go by, the only way to overcome the evils done by a nation are to first admit they happened. Like everyone’s dad who broke a finger three weeks ago but won’t go to the hospital, you can’t treat a wound you don’t acknowledge exists.
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